Porsche Boxster & Cayman
The stuff of supercars
Earlier, you'll find our celebration of Ferrari's divine 458 Italia. Can't muster the $236,000 it takes to own one? You're in the right place, because the Boxster and Cayman are your ticket to the 458 Italia experience at three-quarters the speed and one-quarter the price.
Credit the Boxster and Cayman's transcendence to a basic architecture that's the stuff of supercars -- a howling, normally aspirated engine set behind the driver and powering the rear wheels. Instead of pretentious styling and unusable power, the Boxster and the Cayman boast a measured restraint that entices you to drive with absolutely no restraint at all. The flat-six engines sound tantalizing at full throttle and are just powerful enough to move the chassis around at will. The steering is precise, body control is confident, and grip is tenacious. At the limit, the mid-engine Porsches possess the unflappable balance of a trapezist, the assuring forgiveness of the ordained, and the unfiltered communication of a psychic.
In fifteen years, the Boxster and the Cayman have accrued nine All-Star awards and one Automobile of the Year honor. As they head out for their final lap, the 987-series cars recapitulate the Porsche tradition of unlocking more power and more performance. Last year saw the introduction of the Boxster Spyder, a hardened, minimalist model with a striking manually operated rag top. For 2012, the fixed-roof Cayman R repeats the formula with a stiffer suspension, ten more horsepower, and a 121-pound diet that cuts out the radio, the air-conditioning, and the door handles (which are replaced by fabric pulls). Overkill? Absolutely. The base Boxter and Cayman embody the core virtues just as well, but with a lineup this engaging and rewarding, we can't help but love every model.
-- Eric Tingwall
BASE PRICE RANGE: $49,050-$68,450
ENGINES: 2.9L flat-6, 255/265 hp, 214/221 lb-ft; 3.4L flat-6, 310/320/330 hp, 266/273 lb-ft
Volkswagen GTI & Golf TDI
Long before Ford brought us the globally developed Focus that also graces these pages, Volkswagen was, with little fanfare, offering Americans its own quintessentially European small cars in undiluted form. Two years removed from its last redesign, the Golf remains a good choice in any form for its well-appointed interior and well-tuned suspension. However, it's a truly accomplished car in its sportiest (GTI) and most efficient (TDI) variants.
The GTI requires little explanation -- it has earned four All-Star awards and two Automobile of the Year honors from this magazine in the last six years. As always, we love the punch and growl of its 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, its tossable yet poised suspension, and its Audi-quality interior. The fact that in our recent Four Seasons test the GTI proved reliable (requiring one minor warranty repair in 30,650 miles) and cheap to own (thanks to VW's free maintenance plan) only enhances our enthusiasm. The Golf TDI earns mention here for sharing much of the GTI's appeal while achieving a politically correct 42-mpg EPA rating on the highway. No, its 140-hp diesel four-cylinder can't quite keep up with its gasoline-powered counterpart, but the TDI is still engaging to drive and uncommonly refined, especially when paired with the optional six-speed dual-clutch automatic (also offered in the GTI).
The compact-car segment in the United States has greatly improved in the last few years, but the TDI and the GTI, which both start at about $25,000, stand apart for the fact that they're not simply nice, fuel-sipping compact cars. They're German enthusiasts' cars that just happen to be compact and efficient.
-- David Zenlea
BASE PRICE RANGE: $24,465-$26,565
ENGINES: 2.0L turbocharged I-4, 200 hp, 207 lb-ft; 2.0L turbo-diesel I-4, 140 hp, 236 lb-ft